Study Guide

Turtle Themes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Nobody likes feeling stuck. And Kay Ryan's titular turtle is "often" stuck. All she asks is the freedom to move (see "Mobility Imagery" in "Symbols, Imagery, and Word Play") so she can find food. But that freedom is blocked at every turn—by geography, by predators, by chance. How can she stand it? How do you stand it when you feel stuck? For humans, freedom is mental as well as physical: even if our bodies are confined, we value the freedom to think, hope, and dream.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Why do you think the turtle can't even imagine escaping the harsh limitations of her way of life?
    2. What role does chance play in the turtle's life? Do you think that luck or chance has played a significant role in your own life? Why or why not?
    3. When do you feel most free? Do you ever imagine a life of greater freedom? If so, how is that vision different from the life you are living now? 
    4. Do you agree with the way the turtle responds to the danger of being trapped? What kinds of situations make you feel frustrated or trapped? How do you keep your cool at those times?

    Chew on This

    Eye of the tiger—er, turtle, gang. "Turtle" suggests that survival of the fittest is the dominant principle of human society as well as the animal world. Only the strong have the power to control their own lives, while the weak have little, if any, freedom.

    "Turtle" suggests that people create their own prisons of low expectations. When individuals fail to exercise their imagination and freedom of choice, they surrender control over their own lives, becoming as powerless and vulnerable as a turtle on its back. No fun!

  • Perseverance

    Here's a riddle for you: In "Turtle," how is Kay Ryan's turtle like Abraham Lincoln? You can make up your own response if you like, but here's one answer: They both understand the power of perseverance. "I am a slow walker," said Lincoln, "but I never walk backward." Also, "I am not concerned that you have fallen—I am concerned that you arise." What a relief those words must be for Ryan's turtle! Lincoln seems like a kindred spirit (in high places!), a friend who would understand truly what her life is all about.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Do you think the speaker of the poem is impressed by the turtle's perseverance? Why or why not? 
    2. How would you rank the turtle's perseverance on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is "gives up very easily" and 5 is "never quits"? Why? How would you rank yourself on such a scale? Why?
    3. Do you think perseverance is more of an inherited personality trait or a learned behavior? Why do you think so?
    4. What do you think is the source of the turtle's perseverance?

    Chew on This

    The turtle's perseverance shows the power of courage and hope. Against overwhelming odds, the turtle not only manages to survive, but also finds meaning and even joy in the humble circumstances of her life. Turtle power!

    Sorry, gang. The turtle perseveres because she has to survive, but her actions are more pitiful than admirable. The poem suggests that harsh circumstances can rob people of hope, making them passive and meek. Merely enduring is not really living.

  • Women and Femininity

    Few would argue that "Turtle" is an overtly feminist poem, but some readers detect a subtle critique of traditional female roles in society. There's no getting around the fact that Kay Ryan chose to make the turtle a "she." But maybe you think it's a stretch to conclude that the poem develops themes about women and femininity. Fair enough. Still, just so you don't miss all the fun, try to keep an open mind as you follow the discussion below.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Do you think the situations depicted in "Turtle" are representative of challenges often faced by women? Why or why not?
    2. Do you think of the speaker of "Turtle" as male or female (or neither)? Why? 
    3. What effect, if any, does your assumption about the speaker's gender have on your reading of the poem?
    4. Try changing all the feminine pronouns in "Turtle" to masculine pronouns; then, read the poem again. Does changing the turtle's gender affect your response to, or understanding of, the poem? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Come one, come all! Though "Turtle" has a female protagonist, the poem's central themes of freedom and confinement are equally relevant to men and women. The poem suggests that, in a competitive society, mental toughness as well as physical strength are necessary requirements for success.

    Nope! Ladies only. On one level, "Turtle" can be read as an allegory of women's struggles to escape the inequities of traditional gender roles. Emotionally loaded words hint at the vulnerability of women in male-dominated society and the enormous effort required to overcome gender-based barriers.

  • Humility

    As the opposite of arrogance, humility is arguably a positive trait (arrogant hare, humble tortoise). Although the word "humility" does not appear in "Turtle," the turtle clearly qualifies as a humble character. Words such as "modest," "patience," and "chastened" are closely related, conceptually, with the meaning of humility. Yet the poem also explores the flip side of this theme, exploring the potential drawbacks of humility. Is it possible for a person to be "too humble"? What traits does a person suppress, what opportunities does he or she sacrifice, in order to maintain a humble mindset?

    Questions About Humility

    1. Do you admire the turtle's humility? Why or why not? Do you consider yourself a humble person? Why or why not?
    2. Do you think the turtle's humble attitude has stunted her imagination? Why do you think so?
    3. Do you think the turtle's humility tends to make her humorless? Why or why not? 
    4. If the turtle were a person, do you think she would be able to laugh at herself? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    It's all about getting by. The turtle's humility is an important survival skill. Realistic about her own limitations, she finds ways to work around her weaknesses and stoically takes setbacks in stride.

    "Turtle" suggests that there's a fine line between humility and apathy. Like the turtle in Ryan's poem, some people become so meek and resigned that they lose all aspirations for improving their own lives. Sad.